I met Emon Hassan back in 2008, when we both found ourselves–somewhat improbably, we’d likely agree–at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NPR, to cover that historic election night when Barack Obama was declared the 44th President of the United States. The not-yet-famous social media master Andy Carvin^ had convened a group of a dozen or so folks, including us, to cover election night via social media.
It’s hard to say how we forged a friendship that evening, as everyone in the room had head and fingers to keyboard, much less how we’ve maintained that friendship (though we both live in New York, we rarely see each other). But we have stayed in touch, mostly thanks to Facebook and twitter, where I’ve been amazed and happy to see Emon’s career as a photojournalist unfolding. Back when I met Emon, he was a wig marketer. (More about that in a minute). Today, he shoots regularly for The New York Times, Narratively, and a variety of other outlets. I was curious about how he made that leap, and I thought you would be, too, so I asked.
It seems like just a year or two ago you were selling wigs full-time in New Jersey (or do I have some details about that wrong?). How did you go from that to this in such a short time? (I know it never seems so short to the person living it.)
I actually worked in the Marketing Department of a hair extension company in New Jersey and never had to do sales. I planned the company’s web marketing, eCommerce, and outreach programs. [But before that] I produced a short one-act play in 2003 while I was in Brooklyn College doing my Bachelors in Entertainment Marketing, which led to a stint in writing and co-producing a series of radio dramas for Big Apple Short Radio Drama Festival in 2005. I made my first short film in 2003 and the second in 2005. My radio pieces are up on PRX. My latest fiction production was The Third, a supernatural/sci fi web series.
In 2009 I invested in a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L lens, my first serious set of gear, and left the job at the end of summer the same year. By then I had about a year’s worth of experience, if you can call it that, shooting concerts and profiling bands for my blog, Guitarkadia, with a Canon Rebel XTi. I also had a cheap 3CCD Canon camcorder I bought from B&H but I mostly would shoot photos – Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, festivals here and photo walks there. I photographed my first major concert on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died, at Central Park Summerstage; Ziggy Marley and 311 played that evening. I ended up shooting a number of concerts that summer and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t cold called the PR person at the time, Amber Haeckel. I worked with her on many concerts that summer and often would turn to her for advice. “You are nice and not a pain in the ass to deal with. That alone, besides talent, will take you far.” Those words should be chiseled on a stone tablet and handed out to every freelancer out there.
Sometime in 2010 I started reaching out to newspaper photo editors in New York, researching mastheads for email conventions, cold emailing/calling them and following up with new stories I’d shoot. One summer day in 2011, after a former Rolling Stone photographer suggested I reach out to editors and let them know why they should work with me, I emailed about 15 photo editors. There was exactly one response from all those emails a few weeks later. “I think the best place for you to start is the Culture section. Here are three editors you should contact….” I signed a freelance contract with the The New York Times a month later, number one on that email list. Working with other publications soon followed. My philosophy has always been the same: “Don’t be a dick.”
Connecting with Narratively was the highlight of 2012 after having a pretty awful year and a half as a freelancer. I found myself amidst a group of creative minds who have, as they say, have love for non-fiction storytelling and New York. It was a match made in heaven.
In your work, you really excel at unearthing and presenting what I call “quiet” stories–overlooked people/places/things/experiences–that are really fascinating but which don’t tend to be meme-ifiable, viral pieces. A few related questions, then: What are some of the ways you find these stories? What do you think is the importance of these types of stories in a media moment that seems to be seized with fluffy BuzzFeed-like posts?
I realized early on in my young career as a non-fiction storyteller that if I needed to stand out I’d better tell stories no one else is. It’s not hard in New York City, where stories are in the beginning or closing stages at every turn. Not all of them make for sexy headlines or will go “viral.” How do I know what story is worth telling? I trust my gut on that completely. Some stories I stumble into while on an assignment, some I find when I’m not even looking (but I’m always looking), and some I seek out based on ‘I wonder’ or ‘What if’ questions that pop into my head. I never worry about what will “sell” to a publication or an audience because none of them know what it wants but both know they like to be surprised. I only worry about repeating myself and sucking. My goal is to tell evergreen stories because life is short and those stories will never die.
I think it’s important to give voices to “quiet” stories because they in turn speak for thousands of other similar stories. A story about a Mexican Shaman in New Jersey fighting to keep his endangered language alive will most likely never make headline – unless the Shaman is played by Antonio Banderas, and he actually fist fights – on traditional news media but it can give hope to someone in Bangladesh. The story of an Englishman in New York who runs a “hospital for clocks” will most likely not trend on Twitter but it will quietly be watched by thousands who love clocks and who love New York. Does “The Harlem Grandmaster and His Ten Thousand Karate Kids” qualify as a quiet story? Maybe to the ten thousand and first kid.
My advice to anyone who wants to stand out in his/her chosen career: (a) Don’t be a pain in the ass. Your talent won’t buy longevity, your professionalism will. (b) Learn from your mistakes to make the right “mistakes” on the next round. (c) Get good at what you do. You can only do that by putting in time for your craft. There. Is. No. Shortcut. (d) If you love what you do, you’ll be happy with your life and you’ll make those around you happy too.
Make yourself happy.